Gluten Cross-Contamination: Where Does It Come From?

How can gluten get you? Lots of ways, actually

Don't use this cutting board! (Gluten cross-contamination can make you really sick). Getty Images/Tim Pannell

When you're brand-new to the gluten-free diet, it's difficult to imagine two things: one, how little gluten it actually takes to make you sick, and two, where that gluten can hide. Gluten cross-contamination — i.e., contamination of your gluten-free food with gluten in quantities enough to make you ill — can occur in a variety of different places, including your own kitchen. It also can occur in packaged foods ...

even those that say "gluten-free" right on them.

How can you guard against it? Well, you need to know how and where it occurs. Once you've got a handle on that, you can prevent it successfully ... in most cases, anyway.

Some people react more frequently than others to gluten cross-contamination (see my article on How much gluten can make me sick? for more information). But even if you're one of the more sensitive ones (as I am), it's still possible to protect yourself against most glutenings.

Here's a list of the top five places gluten cross-contamination occurs:

1) Left-over gluten in a newly gluten-free kitchen. The gluten-free diet has a huge learning curve, and when you're a complete neophyte, it's tough to know exactly what you need to do to de-gluten your kitchen completely. This left-over gluten is one of the main reasons people who have just started the diet report they feel great for a few days, but then find they feel awful for a day or two, even though they're eating gluten-free — most likely, they've been glutened by left-over gluten in their own kitchens.

To get you off on the right path, here's some resources on making your home kitchen (and the rest of your home) completely safe:

2) Gluten cross-contamination in a shared kitchen.

It can be tough to share a kitchen between gluten and gluten-free foods — it takes full dedication and lots of diligence from every member of the household, not just from the gluten-free member/members. If you don't have that dedication and buy-in from everyone, those who need to be gluten-free almost certainly will continue to suffer from symptoms. If you're considering having a shared kitchen, take a look at these articles on how to make it work:

3) Restaurant meals, even meals billed as "gluten-free." Many restaurants do a decent job of producing gluten-free meals for their customers with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. But in the vast majority of cases, they're preparing your gluten-free food in the main kitchen, and it can be difficult to prevent cross-contamination under those circumstances. You can help by making certain the chef understands exactly what you need to make your meal safe, but any time you eat out, you're taking a risk. Here's more information on eating out safely gluten-free:

    4) Food from a friend or relative's kitchen that's not quite gluten-free enough. It takes most people several months — at least! — to get a handle on all they need to do to stay gluten-free. That's why I recommend you never eat food prepared by a friend or a relative unless you're standing there watching them make it (and even then, I'm very cautious). Otherwise, you risk them using contaminated kitchen utensils or cookware to make the food, or even worse, adding an unsafe ingredient unknowingly. I learned the hard way with this — it's rough to tell your friends and relations you won't eat their food, but it's rougher to experience all-out gluten symptoms because you didn't want to hurt their feelings.

    5) 'Gluten-Free'-labeled products. Most people assume that something labeled "gluten-free" is completely free of gluten ... but that's not true. Most foods carrying a gluten-free label still contain a tiny amount of gluten, and some people react even to that tiny amount. In addition, the more of these foods you eat, the more gluten you're consuming ... and the greater your chance of having a reaction. For more on gluten in gluten-free foods, take a look at these articles:

    Guarding against gluten cross-contamination can seem like it's going to be a full-time job, and it's one you need to couple with learning exactly what foods are gluten-free and what foods contain gluten. But believe it or not, there will come a time when it's second nature to you ... and your health has improved so much that it's unquestionably worth it.

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